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The Food Lab Lite: Easy Pork and Three Bean Chili

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

Having just spent a couple weeks in beautifully tropical and mild Colombian weather only to be plunged cold turkey into the midst of a cold New York winter, there are only a few things on my mind right now. Snuggie-clad television marathons.* 50% more baths than usual.** And chili. Lots and lots of chili.

*Why oh why did I start watching Breaking Bad, and are there support groups for this addiction?

**My average goes up to 1 1/2 per day during the winter. Total percentage of waking hours spent in warm water: 16.

Seriously, is there any meal better on a cold winter night? Tender meat that melts into a deep, rich, warming sauce. The combination of fruity depth and heat. It's versatile enough that you can blindly reach into the cutlery drawer and not care whether or not you come back with a fork or a spoon.

Texans will have you believe that there's only one kind of chili, and it's made with beef and chilies only. They'll also try and tell you that "y'all" is an acceptable English contraction and that most things are better fried or grilled. They may well be correct on all three accounts, but I like to make a strong case for alterna-chilies. This time, it's made with pork shoulder braised until meltingly tender, real dried chilies, and not just one type of bean (gasp!), but three types of beans (ga-ga-gasp!).

If you've been following the Food Lab for a while, you'll probably notice that this week's recipe is not strikingly original. It is, however, strikingly delicious, and that's usually good enough.

Really, it combines a few elements we've learned from a few explorations in the past. Let's head in and take a look.

The Chili Base

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I'm a strong advocate of using whole dried chilies, and a good combination of them to hit as many flavor notes as possible, adding richness and complexity to your chili. On the other hand, I'm also an advocate of pragmatic recipes when your schedule calls for them. In this case, I opted to use chili powder in place of the whole dried chilies.

The problem, of course, is that store-bought chili powder doesn't offer the depth of flavor that you can get out of whole chilies. There are a few ways to improve matters. First off, toasting the chili powder in oil before adding your liquid elements is essential. Toasting at temperatures in the 300°+ range causes many of the aromatic compounds in the chilies to break down and recombine, forming new compounds that add layers of complexity and flavor to the mix.

The second trick is something I stumbled upon when working on my Carne Adovada recipe. By adding a touch of frozen orange juice concentrate along with blending some raisins into the chili mixture, you can hit many of the rich, fruity notes that are present in dried chilies but not in chili powder. The result is a deep, complex flavor base for you to add your meat and beans to.

Onions, garlic, ground cumin, ground coriander, dried oregano, bay leaves, and some tomatoes round out the mix. Rather than thinning out the mixture with water, I use chicken stock, along with a few good squirts of Asian fish sauce. Fish sauce is packed with glutamates and inosinate, two chemical compounds that enhance our perception of meaty flavors. It's a great way to add depth to any stew.

The Pork

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Ground pork will work fine in this recipe, but I prefer the texture of chunky hunks of pork braised until fall-apart tender.

You might be tempted to brown all the meat, thinking that more browning = more flavor, but it's a trade-off. Browned meat will always turn out dryer and tougher than un-browned meat, as the temperatures required for browning will cause muscle proteins to tighten beyond the point of no return.

The solution is one I discovered in my Real Texas Chile Con Carne adventures. Rather than browning all of the meat, just brown one side. Since most of the flavorful compounds developed during the browning process are water soluble, even by browning one side of the meat, the flavor developed will still manage to spread throughout the entire stew. You end up with plenty of flavor, and super-tender and moist pork.

The Beans

You can go all out and use dried beans for this recipe (hint: soak them and cook them in salted water in order to get the most tender, most evenly cooked skins before draining and adding to your chili), but this is meant to be an easy recipe, which means that I'm not willing to let it become a two day-long affair.

Canned beans offer a couple advantages over dried. They're obviously easier and faster and they're always perfectly cooked and creamy. The downside is that the lack the flavor of dried beans. But good news: you don't have to settle for flavorless beans just because they're canned.

Simmering the beans for an extended period of time in a flavorful liquid (around 45 minutes will do) will inject them with enough flavor to appease even the most discerning of palates.

But won't they overcook and turn to mush in that time?! you might ask. Well, if you were simmering the beans in plain water or broth, the answer is probably yes—they will continue to soften until they break down into mush. But here's the thing: Bean walls are held together with pectin, a protein glue that keeps vegetable cells together. The rate at which pectin breaks down is greatly affected by the pH level of its cooking liquid. The more acidic the liquid, the slower the pectin breaks down.

So when cooked in an acidic base like your chili, you can safely simmer beans for an extended period of time without fear of them turning to mush. (It's for this reason that a dish like Boston Baked beans, in which dried beans are cooked in an acidic base, can take 9 to 10 hours to fully cook.)

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Once your beans are done cooked and the pork is tender, your chili is ready to go. You can serve as-is, top it off with cheese, stir it into a bag of Fritos, or go my favorite route: nothing but a handful of thinly sliced scallions and chopped cilantro.

Winter is coming? Consider yourselves braced.

Get The Recipe!

Easy Pork and Three Bean Chili »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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